The future of scholarly publishing: from short term solutions to permanent change

Guest blog by Charles Oppenheim and Katrine Sundsbø, University of Essex

Blackboard with handwritten chalk text: what's NEXT?

A truism that has been proclaimed frequently in recent weeks is that once the coronavirus is tackled and the immediate crisis has passed, “things will never be the same again”.  This statement is typically made in the context of shopping habits, the ways we work, our trust in government, our trust in scientific evidence, the role of medical and care services, the value placed by employers, especially government, in workers in these professions, the way we interact with others in public, the importance of social media, the use of methods of teaching or transport, and so on. Many have wondered how things will change after the crisis is over, and how long the change will last, with the worry that any positive impact, i.e., the environment and its focus on health and wellbeing, will only be temporary. Though COVID-19 will undoubtedly shake the global economy to the core, there might be a silver lining where library and information professionals, can make permanent positive changes. In this brief blog post, we want to look at possible future scenarios for scholarly publishing.

Publishers and free access to online content

Right now there are numerous short-term initiatives from traditional publishers offering all or part of their collections of journal articles and reports (though not so often of books) free of charge.  It has to be said these initiatives are sometimes only confined to biomedical content, and do not include social, psychological or other literatures.  It also has to be said that not all traditional publishers have offered such initiatives (Taylor & Francis is, according to anecdotes, an example of a major publisher showing a lack of enthusiasm for now).  Significantly, these initiatives are usually time-limited, leading therefore to an understandable suspicion that they are more to do with improving the publisher’s image with scholars in the hope that they will get their reward when the crisis is over and it’s time for decisions on subscription renewals, rather than due to worthy higher motives.  In addition, the temporary access confuses, as libraries have yet another type of open access that they need to explain to their users.  It is also unclear whether the authors of future articles of relevance to the pandemic will be required to pay Article Processing Charges (APCs) or not. Are we lured in and blinded by the ‘kindness’ of making crucial information open access in a time of need, when it really should have been free to access to begin with? And what happens when we try to go back to ‘normal’, will the paywalls (and prices!) go up again automatically?

Nonetheless, initiatives to make research open are always welcome.  It is also welcome that such free of charge material is available to students, policy-makers and the general public as well as to scholars who are used to institutional subscriptions to journals and databases being “free” at the point of use. The pandemic has also prompted the opening up of raw data in some cases. We leave readers to decide whether this opening up is short-term or long-term, strategic or opportunist, humanitarian or a marketing move.  We suspect it will turn out to be a short term marketing move, but the publishers and data owners should bear in mind that people will have memories of the times when all these research outputs were free of charge to non-subscribers.

Print publishing

We should also note that this pandemic doesn’t just affect electronic materials. Several commentators have noted that print publishing is generally going through a coronavirus crisis (see for example Amol Rajan’s post on BBC ‘How coronavirus infected publishing’ or this post on how Indie publishers face an  ‘existential crisis’), as printing firms suffer job losses, as advertising revenues are in decline and as postal services are hit by a combination of increased demands and staff unable to come to work. It is also a truism that bookshops are suffering, and that Amazon has become even more dominant than hitherto. Whether many print journals will survive at the end of this pandemic (and of so, in which subject areas) is an open question. We are not optimistic.

To be (open), or not to be (open)?

The pressure to make more materials open access has been around for many years.  Up until the pandemic, the response of traditional publishers has been cautious, with initiatives such as Article Processing Charges put in place to ensure no significant loss of income. Now that publishers have (temporarily) lowered the barriers, they will have to think hard about how to balance the need to be more open with the need to remain profitable.

The overall picture for the big publishers seems mixed.  RELX, the parent company of Elsevier, recently noted that:

The year to date underlying revenue growth rate is slightly higher than in the same period of the prior year. In primary research, subscription renewal rates are in line with recent years, and growth in author-pays open access revenue is very strong. Article submission growth rates, to both subscription and author-pays open access journals, remain strong. Databases & tools revenue is growing well, partly offset by declines in print books. We have seen only a limited impact from COVID-19 so far.’

But on the other hand, Wiley has reported that the pandemic has had an effect on income and profits.

So how will publishers respond in the medium to long term?  Some (such as Elsevier) are part of a much larger conglomerate, so maybe able to weather the storm.  Organisations heavily dependent on publishing for their income and profits might go for merger, acquisition of businesses in other sectors.  Whatever approach they take, however, they will have to think hard about how they price and control the dissemination of their offerings.  It might be too early to say what the true impact will be for publishers at the end of this, but we suspect the larger publishers, who have invested in databases and tools (and have large profit margins) will suffer less. Scholarly-led and small publishers might not be able to survive this, and we fear the print publishing too will become more of a thing of the past.

If our predictions were to happen, without any interference or attempt to save what might seem lost, it might be the drop that pushes the scholarly publishing environment from frustration to anger.

In fact, the relationship between the pandemic, research practice and scholarly communication has already generated a great deal of comment.  Samuel Moore, an Open Access commentator, has written a post in which he argues that now is the time for consumers of scholarly literature to get the big commercial publishers out of the scholarly publishing arena. He is not alone; chemist Peter Murray-Rust  is another strong advocate for the removal of commercial publishers from the scholarly communication environment, as can be seen from his Twitter feed @petermurrayrust. Perhaps the most powerful piece is a blogpost written by Lizzie Gadd from Loughborough University.  In this piece, she notes that:

“…efforts to advocate for open access to research have been stifled by what I call the two big “buts”:

  1. But what about publishers and scholarly societies? How do we ensure they survive and that the economy isn’t damaged? (Subtext: publications are for profit)
  2. But what about academic careers? A good publication list is critical for promotion and tenure. (Subtext: publications are for credit).

When I explained the first “but” to my partner, and how many open access policies sought to shore up the publishing industry, he said it sounded like something straight out of the eighteenth century slave trade debates. The fact that profits will be affected by doing the right thing, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing. Right?”

She also notes that the second argument has been widely decried by experts in bibliometrics and in research evaluation. Instead, she proposes that:

UKRI need to set up a funder-based publishing platform and say to recipients, if you want our money, publish your findings here. End of…This is not a new idea, Gates Open Research is a great example. Despite not being the only publication option for Gates Foundation recipients, the papers published in Gates Open Research are achieving a cites-per-paper rate on a par with the world average for medicine. “

We would go a bit further, and suggest that this be applied world-wide; each research funder should make it a condition of funding that any outputs from that research must be made open access (using one of a choice of Creative Commons licences) either in the funder’s own repository, or in a different repository approved by the funder. The challenges of making this happen immediately needs to be worked out, i.e. how to ensure that something is deposited in a repository on the date of publication or before is easier said than done. However, collectively there is enough money and expertise to make this happen if we are open to change.

Open Access is, of course, not a new thing that we’ve suddenly realised we need in this pandemic, it has been a hot topic for a while, with calls to action, recommendations of good practice and threats from all sides (libraries, researchers, publishers). Open Access could be the answer for everyone, if we could agree on our terms and conditions. No one wants to sacrifice their status quo, even if the future might be better. A major factor stopping this shift to full open access to research outputs is, as Gadd has observed, the obsession with impact factors, league tables and citations, which dictates where one should publish. Whatever the rules of the high impact journal, it is followed blindly. Signing over copyright and putting items behind a paywall? Measuring the worth of research in terms of how many mentions it has (in a specific database)? Comparing research institutions based on citations, even if institutions and the research are so dissimilar it’s impossible to really get a worthwhile comparison? When you start explaining the status quo to anyone, it is shocking, yet this is so embedded into scholarly practice that few want to change it. “But… It might disrupt the whole system?”

Isn’t that kind of the point? Needless to say, traditional publishers are happy for the status quo to remain, and indeed some, such as Thomson-Reuters and Elsevier, provide important tools for measuring citations and impact factors.

Funders, institutions and infrastructure

Prior to the current developments, many have called on institutions and scholars to start open access presses, archives and journals in order to push the commercial publishers out. However, whilst the calls to actions have been going out, they have not yet been going out with a bag of money to those who answer the calls. Many non-profit initiatives in scholarly publishing are poorly funded and run by academics or professional services staff who are doing this because they believe information should be accessible and open.

Some initiatives grow organically within institutions or societies, and some almost happen overnight, as a fresh breath of air. They all have one thing in common, they face major challenges in this new environment, and many will not survive without truly dedicated (and underpaid) people. Universities can believe in these projects and publishing venues, but they can rarely support much, as their income will decline dramatically with the loss of income from overseas students (we suspect that particular market is going to collapse).  The long-term impact of the virus on global research funding, where presumably in future, the emphasis will be on topics such as virology, epidemiology, the development of efficient testing and protective equipment, social psychology, mass communication, etc., rather than more traditional subjects (and in any case, the amounts of research funding on offer will no doubt be less because of economic contraction) is unclear.  It is also not helped by the fact that the number of universities and research institutions that remain viable will almost certainly reduce.

Perhaps this is a time to shift the way funders fund, and for institutions, scholars and funders to unite in a way they haven’t previously. We might be slightly biased here, but in addition to paying for content, the work that goes into advocating for open access, teaching about copyright licences (especially Creative Commons licences) and agreements, educating about responsible metrics and making sure those articles in the repository are compliant is mainly down to academic and scholarly libraries, and in particular, scholarly communication and repository managers within those libraries (or research and enterprise offices). The traditional publishing environment will not change whilst we sit and wait for it to change.

Wellcome Trust has already started looking into how they can help create a better research environment, by addressing problems and issues that have always been there but were revealed by an online anonymous survey. We hope that several funders will follow, and that we will see a future where more money is spent on infrastructure and non-profit initiatives that support open access to research and data.

To sum up: on scholarly communication we foresee a shift away from the currently dominant traditional publishers to a more open, sharing environment, where creators of scholarly data and papers share rather than compete with other scholars active in their field; and this means, in turn, a sharp rise in the use of open access and open data, and who knows, even a move away from ranking individuals and their employers by dubious statistics such as citation counts or the h index.  We also predict a marked shift away from print and towards electronic methods of dissemination, and the collapse of smaller journals and publishers. We see a more active role for funders in encouraging research in selected priority areas.  So, we predict some significant changes, but the key to it all is educating funders, scholars and employers that impact factors, h indexes, ranking lists, etc., are not sacrosanct, and that just signing away one’s copyright to a publisher without thinking about it should no longer be the norm. Then we can move onto the stage where funding agencies oblige researchers to put their outputs in an approved Open Access repository.

The authors

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Charles Oppenheim is a Visiting Professor at Robert Gordon University. He was formerly Professor of Information Science at Loughborough University.
Smiling Caucasian female, long blond hair, black roll neck top.
Katrine Sundsbø is Scholarly Communications and Research Support Manager at Library Services, University of Essex. She is the creator of the Open Access Escape Room, and co-creator of ‘Copyright dough’.

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